Yugoslavia: cool caves, cable cars, and castles on cliffs. A car is a good way to see rain-splashed sights
We felt we'd chosen well: a week in autumnal Slovenia. The young man who ran the reception desk in our hotel, himself a Slovene, said this is definitely the best season in the northwestern region of Yugoslavia. The mountains and hills gloriously confirmed his opinion.
More than half of Slovenia is clothed in forest and woodland, and the bottle-green of conifers rubs shoulders with the rich ochers and rusts of countless beeches - to us an unfamiliar intermixture. Then birches, peppered with soft yellow leaves, sparkle mistily on the fringes of the woods, and in the open pastureland - recently mown but greening up brightly - ancient pear trees lean philosophically. The moist smell of the fall is everywhere, and the leaf-strewn woodland floors are colonized with hepatica and the round, leaves of wild cyclamen. ''They are very pink when they are in flower,'' we were told.
Vacations are funny things; they give an unforgettable importance to certain occasions or places not even mentioned in Baedeker or pinpointed on a map. One such on this vacation - perhaps it was even the high point - was a packed lunch we ate sitting high up on a springy Alpine bank. In a way it was precisely what we had come here for: not the chunks of white bread and slices of meat and cheese, but the stunning expanse of quietness; the sweep of countryside; beyond it, the forests; and, beyond them, the white peaks. They were newly white. They had received as snow what we had experienced on our first day as soaking, unremitting rain. But that unpromising start had given way to transparent sunshine, and here we were, gazing in delight. To complete the picture, three magnificent birds - buzzards, I think - were gliding in the half-distance, broad winged, in circular slow motion, high above potential prey, triumphant in their easy relationship with the airspaces, nonchalant in their alertness. Near our feet autumn crocuses showed up sporadically in the grass, and, after eating, I scrambled higher up the meadow and found some starry Alpine thistles and one minuscule, late-flowering, vividly blue gentian.
We were staying at Lake Bled, below the eastern slopes of the Julian Alps. This is a pretty resort, with a castle on a cliff above the lake. It is a deservedly popular tourist center, though far from crowded in the fall.
When we arrived, Ivanka, the Yugotours representative, had greeted us. She was efficient and friendly, but unhopeful. Which organized tours would we like to go on? The day trip to Venice? Yes. The three-countries tour (Bled being extremely near to both the Italian and the Austrian borders)? - yes. The Julian
Alps tour - of course. ''Only,'' she added, in vigorously rounded English, ''I am not sure, you see, that these tours will be happening, just for two or three people,. . . Really, it is the end of the season. But I will see.''
Then the whole day of rain had followed. Ivanka advised a visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, by local bus. But the city proved no drier than Bled. Also it was Monday and the museums were shut. The shops we found seemed disenchanting. In spite of umbrellas, our feet squelched inside our shoes; our legs were soaked. Finally we hired a small car - mainly for its roof. But we also reasoned that, if the advertised tours were canceled, we would need our own transport anyway. In the event, we kept the car for the rest of the week. It provided invaluable independence. But on the other hand, car hire is not cheap in Yugoslavia, nor is fuel. For five days it cost substantially over $400. (It is cheaper hiring in advance, before leaving for Yugoslavia.)
But without our white Zastava (''Fiat'' to non-Yugoslavs) we would never have seen the buzzards. . . .
Nor would we have seen the Postojna Caves. Some distance southwest of Ljubljana, these extraordinary underground passages and halls are a major tourist attraction. Even on that wet autumn day, a fair crowd of temporary troglodytes loaded their dripping persons onto the miniature railway and were whisked, gasping appropriately, into the cool and fantastic depths. The guided tour is extensive and enlightening. The entire Postojna Cave system is 23 kilometers (15 miles) long. But even more astonishing is the fact that this spooky conglomeration of stalactites, stalagmites, and columns is just one, to quote the guidebook, ''rare jewel among 5,000 caves which have been explored in the Slovenian karst.''
That evening Ivanka informed us the Venice trip was on, starting early next day. So at a time apparently close to dawn the following morning, we were in a coach heading toward the Italian border through the Alpine beauties of Kranjskagora at the foot of the jagged Spik massif of the Julian Alps. This is ski country in winter, climbing country in summer. But it is also sightseeing country, and on this autumn day it was exhilarating. The world sparkled, juicy-green below, pure snow above, and, higher still, a clear sky - post-card conditions. The four hours in Venice is a story in itself. Enough here to mention its accessibility, for a cost of about $25 a person (including a gondola ride!), for travelers staying in northwest Slovenia.
After this, our car came into its own again, and it took us merrily up winding dirt roads, through remote hamlets, into towns of medieval charm. It opened up for us the sub-Alpine attractions of the Triglav National Park, a peaceful blend of agriculture, forests, rivers, and mountains. It ran us alongside Lake Bohinj, the surrounding trees and mountains reflected with stunning perfection in its remarkable stillness and clarity. The cable car up Mt. Vogel, by the lake, operates every hour. In this, we swung aloft to wintry heights - to soft snow and bracing air, a hotel, and ski slopes waiting patiently for the season to really begin.
Another day, our car took us out of Slovenia to Pula on the Istrian coast. No snow here. Instead, dusty heat, a fierce blue Adriatic, and brilliant red-leaf shrubs on the cliffs. In Pula itself, it was the Roman remains that interested us - a small crumbly temple and very fine, vast elliptical amphitheater, now used for summer concerts.
It's a matter of taste, of course, but we were not sorry to return to the fresher pleasures of Alpine Slovenia after this long outing, and we kept to this region for the remainder of the visit. There was plenty to see and explore. In Radovljica, for instance, is an unusual museum devoted to beekeeping, beehives, and bees. Slovenes of the past have been folk-artistically imaginative in their decorating of things apicultural. In the attractively placed village of Kropa is an iron-forging museum. The picturesque houses and streets of Kropa witness an old community long given to the manufacture of nails and screws. But now, at its center, is also a modern factory.
A recently published, glossy book simply called ''Slovenia'' brings out this point well. In the excellent color photography of this handsome volume is seen the comparative affluence of this part of Yugoslavia, its cared-for landscape, and also its recent rush into the age of industrialization. Slovenians, never more so than now, under socialism, are proud of their capacity for hard work. There is new building everywhere - in remote hill farms as well as in the towns. We were told that the postwar surge of people into cities to find work - leaving only about 13 percent of the population on the farms - is a tide that is beginning to turn. Some Slovenians are being encouraged back into the country to earn their wages.
We found the book ''Slovenia'' in the capital. Ljubljana redeemed itself weatherwise on our final Saturday, a frosty bright morning. Apart from a good bookshop, we also (having previously more or less given up hope for anything resembling good food on this vacation) came across an expensive but superb cake shop. It is on a small street off Miklosiceva Cesta. Surprisingly, its prices are not beyond at least some Yugoslavs, and there were whole families and some students enjoying generous slices with a slow, detailed relish.
A week seemed a good time to spend in this attractive part of the world. We flew out of the small Ljubljana airport, slowly passing over range after range of spectacular mountains with a pleasant patchwork of impressions. Many of them rather insignificant, perhaps; but it is small things that distinguish places. There was a man pushing himself furiously up a road on rollerskis (if that's the right term) in the pine woods of Pokljuka; there was a picnic high up a lonely road in cloud mist, which was suddenly interrupted by a half-dozen cows (and a horse) some with clanking bells hanging from collars; there was the sound of the ducks quacking on Lake Bled in the early morning; . . . and there were those soaring, circling magnificent buzzards.